Failing at Normal: An ADHD Success Story by Jessica McCabe at TEDxBratislava (Transcript)

Jessica McCabe at TEDxBratislava

Here is the full transcript of actress Jessica McCabe’s TEDx Talk: Failing at Normal: An ADHD Success Story at TEDxBratislava conference.

Listen to the MP3 audio: Failing at Normal_ An ADHD Success Story by Jessica McCabe at TEDxBratislava


Hello, brains! I say that to you because, if you think about it, it wasn’t really you that decided to come here today. It was your brain.

And whether you decided to walk, or drive, take a taxi, or ride a bike, that decision was made by your brain. Behavior, all behavior, is affected by the brain. This is a story about my brain.

So, I was a smart kid. By 18 months, I was speaking in full sentences. By third grade, I was scoring post-high school on standardized tests I had, as all my teachers agreed, so much potential I was also struggling. I didn’t have many, any, friends outside of books. I was easily overwhelmed.

I spaced out in class. I lost things constantly. And trying to get my brain to focus on anything. I wasn’t excited about was like trying to nail jello to the wall. But I was smart, so nobody was worried.

It wasn’t until middle school, when I was responsible for getting myself to classes on time and remembering to bring my own homework, that being smart wasn’t enough anymore, and my grades started to suffer.

My mom took me to the doctor and, after a comprehensive evaluation, I was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, ADHD. If you’re not familiar with ADHD, it has three primary characteristics: inattention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity.

Some people with ADHD have more of the inattentive presentation. Those are the daydreamers, the space cadets. Some have more of the hyperactive-impulsive presentation. Those are the kids that usually get diagnosed early.

But the most common presentation is a combination of both. My doctor and my parents decided that, given my shiny, new diagnosis, maybe stimulant medication would succeed where spankings and lectures had failed. So I tried it, and it worked.

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The first time I took my medication, it was like putting on glasses and realizing I could see without squinting. I could focus. And without changing anything, my GPA went up a full point. Honestly, it was kind of miraculous.

By 14, I had friends that liked me. By 15, I had published my first poem. I got a boyfriend.

By 17, I knew I wanted to be a journalist. My local college had a program that would guarantee admission to USC. They had a really great journalism program. So, I signed up at my local college and I started taking classes.

I moved in with my boyfriend. Things were going great, until they weren’t. I started having trouble making it to class on time. I aced a statistics course, but I forgot to sign up in time, so I never got the credit. I took classes so I could help my boyfriend with his career, but I completely lost sight of mine.

I never made it to USC. By 21, I dropped out of college and moved back home. Over the next ten years, I started and quit, or was fired from, 15 jobs. I ruined my credit. I got married, and was divorced within a year.

At this point, I was 32, and I had no idea what I was doing with my life, besides reading self-help books that didn’t seem to be helping.

What happened to all that potential? Was I not trying? No! I worked harder than anyone I knew. I didn’t even have time for friends. I was that busy. I had potential, though.

So, my failure was clearly my fault. I just hadn’t done what I need to do to reach it. And, honestly, I was tired of trying, putting more effort into life than everyone else and falling farther and farther behind. At this point, I could have given up on myself, I could have decided that everyone who’d thought I had potential was wrong.

But I didn’t, because I knew that it was my behavior that had gotten me here, and behavior is affected by the brain, and my brain has ADHD. Looking at my behavior, I knew: even with medication, even as an adult, my ADHD was still interfering with my life, and what I needed to know was how and why, and, more importantly, what could I do about it.

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I started to do some research, and I found a lot of great information. I found a lot of bad information too, but that’s another talk.

But there’s good information out there: Websites, podcasts, talks, by researchers and medical professionals; books that would have been way more helpful than the self-help books. I’d been using that were clearly written for normal – well, there’s no normal – neurotypical brains. A lot of what I found, though, was either super technical or seemed like it was written for parents and teachers trying to deal with ADHD kids.

There wasn’t a lot that seemed intended for us, the people who have ADHD. So, I started a YouTube channel. I had no idea how to start a YouTube channel, but I started a YouTube channel. I almost called it “How Not To ADHD,” because that was about all I knew at the time. But my boyfriend, Edward, talked me out of it.

It turns out lots of people need help understanding ADHD, including, maybe especially, those who actually have it. I was no exception. I thought ADHD was kind of the same for everybody. I thought it was mostly about getting distracted. I thought having ADHD was maybe the reason that I was failing at life.

And I thought I was what needed to change, in order to be successful. I couldn’t be successful and still be me. Spoilers: I was wrong.

So, let’s go back for a second, let’s go back to what brought us here today: the brain. Understanding the brain you’re working with, it turns out, is kind of important. And that’s true whether that brain is your employee’s, your student’s, your kid’s, your significant other’s, or your own.

ADHD affects between 5% and 8% of the global population, which means, statistically speaking, there’s between 37 and 60 of us just in this room. You can’t tell who we are just by looking, but it’s fun to watch you try. So, at some point, you’re going to meet someone with ADHD, work with them, give birth to them, or fall in love with them.

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Chances are you already have. And, at some point, you’re going to ask yourself, “What is going on in their brain?!” So, after two years of learning about ADHD and a lifetime of experience with it, after having the honor of connecting with researchers, and doctors, and ADHD experts, and tens of thousands of ADHD brains all over the world, what can I tell you to help you understand ADHD? By the way, many of them helped with this talk.

First of all, it’s real. It’s not bad parenting or lack of discipline. ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder. It’s currently the most well-researched mental condition, and there are actually measurable differences in the brain. These differences are larger in children, but, for most people, they never go away.

In other words, adults have ADHD too. While rates of ADHD diagnosis are increasing, it’s not because of an increase in sugar or technology, or lack of spanking; it’s not, any more than people drowning in swimming pools is because of Nicolas Cage Correlation does not equal causation. Those are real numbers. It’s from both an increase in understanding that ADHD exists, that girls, adults, and gifted students can have it too.

And ironically a lack of understanding that being hyper, misbehaving, or struggling in school does not mean you have ADHD. ADHD is more serious than I realized. The primary characteristics – inattention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity – don’t sound all that serious, and I didn’t think that they were.

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